TAMPA — Theo, 3, isn’t really into the lake smelt being served for breakfast, so he flips his head back and spits the little fish at the woman in the rubber boots.
“He’s so dramatic about it,” says Michelle Uhlig.
The palm-sized Peruvian smelt, however, he devours in a gulp.
Theo’s roommate Josh, who is around 10 and is also a rescue pelican who can no longer fly, is a bit more polite, eating whatever comes his way.
Few people who’ve spent time around a fishing dock in Florida might imagine a brown pelican as picky, but the birds at the Florida Aquarium have the luxury. Twice a day, someone comes by with a big tray of restaurant-quality seafood and feeds it to them by hand. It’s a menu tailored just for them.
Some mornings, before the aquarium opens to guests, Uhlig, a senior biologist, lets the boys out of their enclosure. They waddle past the other birds in the wetlands dome and down to the coral reef exhibit to watch the sharks and other fish for a while.
Seven days a week, dozens of staffers feed the more than 8,000 animals in their care. The daily undertaking is a ballet of preparation, timing, nutrition and enrichment. Each of the 300 species has a unique diet.
The economics and practices of the global seafood market play a role, as much as the biologist carefully chopping squid to the exact size of a puffer fish’s mouth.
The food, which is fit for human consumption, costs around $1,000 a day, the aquarium said, and more than $300,000 a year.
A surprisingly large number of the animals are fed individually, by hand, even the aquatic ones. This is partly so that their consumption can be carefully logged, and referenced later by veterinarians if needed.
The otters, Kraken and Brandon, get this kind of treatment, though from a safe distance. They’re adorable, but have extremely sharp teeth and the bite force of a German shepherd.
Brandon hops up and down like an excited puppy when biologist Chrissy Beuchel approaches with cups of night smelt, capelin and hard-boiled eggs attached to her belt. Kraken is more nonchalant as Beuchel reaches over the glass to toss them down, one at a time, as happens four to six times a day.
Sometimes they’ll get rainbow trout, Kraken’s favorite, or something for “novel enrichment,” a sort of out-of-the-ordinary treat possibly served in a puzzle. That could mean little fish frozen into a red popsicle, or a thawed-out frozen chick.
Kraken, “who’s a little on the chunkier end of things right now,” Beuchel says, was switched to his summer diet, a lighter, seasonal adjustment made under watch of the veterinary staff when the otters start to nap a lot in the afternoon.
The relationships and behaviors formed through feeding this way are tied to the animals’ health beyond just nutrition. “Jackpotting” food carefully for certain behaviors is how you train an otter to voluntarily present its tail through a hole, allowing blood to safely be drawn for checkups.
But the otters live alone. Other strategies are required to deal with the aquarium’s 500,000-gallon centerpiece coral reef, where dozens of diverse species live side by side. Many require individualized diets and the same kind of one-on-one feeding.
On the roof above the reef, Anna Garcia, holding a blue and white target shaped like a football, lowers herself into the water on a mechanical platform and calls out for Mikey the nurse shark. The shark appears, and Garcia lets go of a hunk of fish near Mikey’s mouth.
The sound of Mikey sucking the food in with a powerful vacuum force is surprisingly loud. Garcia glides her hand over the shark’s back and presents another hunk. Thunk!
A few yards away, Antony Curry is in that same water up to his waist, holding a black and white striped disc while feeding the spotted eagle rays. Beuchel stands on a ledge on the other side, holding a white disc with a black turtle silhouette, as she uses tongs to feed shrimp to Shelldon, a loggerhead sea turtle. Because Shelldon, another rescue, can’t swallow that well, the pokey heads have been carefully removed for him.
All used target feeding, a carefully trained behavior where animals recognize and come to their specific targets so they can be fed separately in a community tank.
Even an animal as basic as a jellyfish can learn when and where to expect food. You can tell when the aquarium’s moon jellies have eaten brine shrimp — consumed through the same orifice they excrete from — because you can see their flower-shaped stomach has filled up through their translucent bell.
“Good boy, Bran,” Curry coos to the youngest of the rays, a former resident of Orlando’s Discovery Cove, as he swims off to chew a clam.
“Everyone secretly baby talks to their animals,” Garcia said, laughing. “Some might say, ‘I don’t do that,’ and then you’ll catch them in a back area talking to them. ... It’s because we love them.”
It’s that sort of closeness that allows her, moments later, to easily roll Mikey over on his back to closely inspect him.
Victoria Fagg even sees personality in the 18 millipedes she brings fruit and veggies to in the mornings, watermelon being their favorite. “I have one individual who really likes the top of this log, and he’ll get up on there and wiggle his head.”
The most free-spirited in their dining habits might be Butternut, a blue jay that flies freely in the wetlands dome. Often, guests mistakenly think she flew in off the street. The biologists place food out for her in different spots and shake a maraca to alert her. She’s famous for hiding caches of it, which is why staff members occasionally find a really old peanut.
There’s also “broadcast feeding,” as larger amounts of food are dropped into a tank for various species. This could be seafood, gel or pellets. The style may seem more familiar to home aquarium hobbyists, but it’s extremely measured and deliberate.
A vitamin can be stuffed in a mackerel the way your dog’s heartworm pill gets stuffed in a hunk of cheese. “It never ceases to amaze me how they’ll know, out of all these fish, which fish has the vitamin and they’ll spit it,” said Tim Binder, vice president for animal care. “The team has to get creative.”
To keep the most clever and intelligent residents, like the Pacific octopus, mentally engaged, the team might give them a fish inside a jar with a lid to unscrew.
Some may remember the viral story from an aquarium in Boston a few years back, where handlers were mystified by disappearing rare fish, only to discover an octopus was stealthily crawling out of its tank overnight to visit another tank, where it would feast.
Predation is rare at the Florida Aquarium, because the animals learn they eat far better and easier when they’re fed, but “snacks can happen,” Binder said. On a recent day, associate curator Cristy Barrett spotted a stone crab trying to eat a tulip snail. The snail was promptly moved to safety in another habitat, she said, and the stone crab was given “a nice meal.”
Corals eat too. The “milkshakes” the aquarium feeds them are made with various algae and calcium.
The connection to the global seafood market
Sourcing the seafood for the animals means keeping a constant eye on what’s happening in the marketplace. Herring, for instance, have to be fished in the right season for proper nutritional content. When sourcing krill, the aquarium faces new competition due to human consumption. Krill oil supplements are high in omega-3 fatty acids.
Capelin, another fish the aquarium needs, are fished off the coast of Newfoundland when the pack ice recedes. The Japanese market has a huge appetite for egg-laying females, so fisheries sort out the males for aquarium and fertilizer use. But if the pack ice doesn’t recede in time for the migration, no Newfoundland capelin that year.
It can happen, forcing an aquarium to turn to Argentina or Iceland for capelin at 10 times higher prices.
And you can’t always just sub in another fish. Years ago, Binder had some sea lions in his care that ate Spanish sardines. When the fishery crashed, they turned to very similar Portuguese sardines, but the sea lions kept losing weight. They later realized the sea lions couldn’t metabolize the fat in the Portuguese sardines the same way.
“It seems like every year a couple curveballs get thrown in,” Binder said.
Live brine and mysis shrimp — seahorses eat them — might be the aquarium’s largest food expense due to the quantity needed. The most expensive individual item is a soft shell crab. In weight, though, it’s about 10 varieties of fish.
The most specialized food item is likely the alligator biscuits. Formulated specifically for alligator nutrition, they look like dry dog food. “It’s basically alligator kibble,” Binder said.
Some animals at the aquarium eat actual dog kibble for its nutritional value, among other things, including some birds and the 300 Madagascar hissing cockroaches.
Everything gets prepared in the commissary, which looks like any other busy commercial kitchen, except the orders up on the wall might be for a pair of oystercatchers (exactly 24 clams, on a bed of chopped lake smelt and parrot pellets). Pans and pans of food go out, and dirty dishes are piled in the deep, stainless steel sink.
The food, lots of which is fresh fruit and veggies, could be eaten by humans, though the Spam-like blocks of krill and the omnivore gels, which look like spongy seaweed brownies, did not appear appetizing.
“There’s no five-second rule,” Binder said, joking that if something fell on the floor, he might take it home to feed his son, “but we’d never give it to the animals.”
They work under exactly the same health and safety guidelines as any restaurant kitchen, said Sophie Ippolito, who was chopping up fish headed to the “No Bone Zone,” where it would later be hand-fed to sea stars, who push their translucent stomachs outside their bodies to digest it.
The kitchen also has rodents — frozen in the freezer for the snakes and birds of prey, available in seven different sizes.
Back on the roof of the reef, Garcia finishes feeding Mikey, the shark.
“Food is love, for sure,” she says. In normal times, she likes to cook fried chicken for her father, but during the pandemic, she’d been more distant from her parents, and a lot of other humans. Not the animals at the aquarium, though. “That didn’t stop. We have to be here.”
It’s been vital to them, of course, but, she says, it’s been good for her too.